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Why Environmental Justice Should be Everyone’s Priority

Chevron Refinery Fire
August 6, 2012

My heart is heavy with so many things. 2012 has been a year of distractions and distortion: from the Olympics to the election to our favorite guilty-pleasure reality shows.  Meanwhile, a new epidemic of racialized terror is sweeping this pretending-to-be-post-racial nation, where guns are much more quickly and cheaply available than therapy and mental health care, and murderous xenophobia is rationalized away by our twisted double-speaking corporate media. The value of Black and Brown life is as low as ever, evidenced by racially motivated attacks on innocent people, and the fact that there has still been no semblance of justice for Trayvon Martin, or Oscar Grant, or Manuel Diaz, or Kendrec McDade, or Chavis Carter, or the countless others whose lives have been wasted by similar kinds of state sanctioned violence.

I try to build a fortress of health around myself and those I love, doing all that I can to ensure our survival, but the poison still seeps in.  Everything is toxic… our food is tainted with chemicals and pesticides, the education we receive is laced with lies and inaccuracies, and the physical environment is so dangerous and damaging that our babies are sabotaged right from the gate. I often wonder with exasperation, “damn, can we just live??” And methinks the answer is no. Hell no. Obviously not. When has life ever been an easy option? When have people of color ever been more than a source of cheap expendable labor in this country? When has anyone other than us given a fuck about our survival? And although racism is clearly alive and very real, capitalism has effectively reduced ALL OF US to consumers whose value is measured in market terms. No living being who breathes air and drinks water is immune to environmental destruction. Zoom out for a second… look at an atlas or a globe and you will realize that this planet is smaller than we think. Nuclear waste in Japanese oceans will wind up on California shores in a matter of weeks, because it is the same Pacific Ocean, and all of the Earth’s waters and skies are interconnected.

None of our lives, our love, our bodies, have ever mattered to the Chevron corporation, for instance, whose massive fire plume is slowly choking out the oxygen over Richmond and the entire Bay Area as I write this. What can I even say to my friends and loved ones who have been mandated to stay in their homes, barricading themselves against the acrid poisonous air, as if you can really fully protect yourself from air… Do I tell them that I am worried for their lungs and their brains and their skin, because they will have to come out sometime, and they can’t hold their breath forever? And where could they even go to seek refuge? The entire world is being exploited beyond belief. Beyond habitability. And although we have all been trained by formulaic horror flicks to wait patiently and ignorantly for the zombie apocalypse, “the end of the world” is a bit of an inaccurate statement. The world (as in Planet Earth) will be here long after us: just as it was here long before the malignant cancers of industrial profit-driven capitalism and environmental racism.  This planet has survived ice ages and global warmings many times over… we are the fragile ones, so “the end of humanity” is perhaps more precise. It hurts to think about it, so we try not to notice that the future is rapidly becoming the present, where drone warfare is real, and our water is being hydrofracked until it is literally flammable, and the mountaintops are being blown off, and the icecaps have already melted more than scientists thought possible for another three decades.  And although people of color are the first to suffer and the last to get relief, all living beings have a stake in environmental justice because it is our bodies and our children and grandchildren’s bodies that will bear the brunt of these toxins in the form of cancers, neurological disorders, respiratory diseases, etc. for generations to come: just as we who are living now still grapple with the traumas of oil spills and wars and genocides that occurred before we were born.  I am passionate about environmental justice because it is about human survival: a feat that is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

As is often the case, Tupac Shakur said it best: “I was given this world, I didn’t make it”. I inherited this world, like an old run-down but nonetheless beautiful estate, and it’s definitely a fixer-upper. Fixing it up isn’t easy and I definitely can’t do it alone, but I’m doing my best.  As small as I may feel sometimes, doing what little I can to educate and protect myself and my loved ones from premature death feels like it’s better than nothing. And re-membering the powerful symbiotic relationship we have with the Earth as human beings is my way of refusing to sit shrouded in numbness, watching helplessly as the world becomes a wretched, burning dystopia. Will you join me?

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The Lorax: Environmentalism, Consumption and Manifest Destiny

“It’s me, the guy who still cares about the trees.” 

Even in it’s 2012 Hollywood 3-Dimensional rendition, Dr. Seuss’ classic cautionary tale The Lorax still functions to deliver many important reminders.

The first is that environmental degradation comes in many forms: from the obvious clear-cutting of trees and the poisoning of air and water, to our junk food addiction (marshmallows in this case), and the normalized proliferation of “things”: we are drowning in stuff that nobody needs, all in the name of a profit.  The absurdity of the “thnead” itself (the ridiculous multi-purpose invention whose mass production led to all the deforestation) and people’s unending demand for it demonstrates that the logic of capitalism works in direct opposition to the logic of nature.  Put best by the evil businessman O ‘Hare, who privatized the air and turned it into a bottled commodity, “people will buy anything if it comes in a plastic bottle”.  Not surprisingly, O’Hare is the main opponent to the existence of real trees, as they produce oxygen for free, and his wealth was built upon cornering that market.

One of the worst things adults do for money is break the promises we make to nature as small children: promises to honor and protect the natural world, and to always remain fascinated by the beauty and wonder of it all.  Even the Once-ler (the “entrepreneur” responsible for the decimation of every last tree) once had a conscience.  Just a regular guy trying to make his greedy family proud, he broke his promise never to cut down another tree once the profits started rolling in.  Displacing the actual labor (and the accountability) onto machines and other people, the Once-ler hid in his industrial mansion while the forests were obliterated.  When confronted by the Lorax (the small, furry, mustached creature who “speaks for the trees”), the Once-ler’s defense was that he hadn’t broken any laws and was in fact within his rights.  He was simply fulfilling his “destiny” and didn’t want to feel bad about it.  Hmmm, sound familiar? Like the historical justification for territorial expansion and colonization, perhaps? Or the big conglomerated corporation that enjoys unlimited profits, growth and the rights of personhood without a soul or a conscience? There was no appealing to the Once-ler on the basis of love, health or survival because all he could see was the money.  Only decades after the last tree had fallen and he himself began to feel the impact of the destruction he had caused did the Once-ler begin to make amends, and this is where the “plant-a-tree-so-you-can-rid-yourself-of-guilt” message came into play.  Now to be clear, I appreciate this message, and I stand with Wangari Maathai and her idea that replenishing the planet by planting seeds of life is one of the most important things we can do as individuals. I just think the message is much deeper than this.  For one thing, control and ownership of seeds by corporations who make it illegal for small farmers to save seeds for their next harvest is a very real and terrifying thing that threatens the survival of humanity and is already happening.  Secondly, there will always be people who “still care” about the Earth and who will do everything in their power to conserve it, but the real environmental question is not whether we as individuals care enough to recycle or buy “green” products (a concept that still works in service of capital by playing on people’s guilt); it is whether we can collectively reclaim our planet and its resources from the control of corporations- the real entities responsible for everything from species extinction, oil spills, genetically modified foods, cancers of all kinds, birth defects, premature death, and the list goes on and on.

So who will speak for the trees and the animals if we do not?  Who will speak for the children who will inherit this toxic planet?  Not the entities destroying the ecosystem, that’s for sure.  We may not be the big polluters, but every day we consent to the world the way it is by purchasing that new product without paying attention to how it is made, or by whom, or by showing up to work for companies whose wealth depends on paying us as little as possible for our labor and our most valuable asset –our time. At one moment in the film, the good-natured service worker (who delivers cases of O’Hare’s bottled air to people’s homes and offices) breaks into song, basically admitting that although this is how he makes his livelihood, free air sounds like a good idea.  In other words, to actualize the world we want we will have to rethink the way we make a living (and even what that might mean in non-economic terms).  We will have to come to understand ourselves not simply as manipulable consumers, or individual human beings just trying to “come up” or “get ours”, but instead as communities who are responsible for each other, and advocates for the survival of the planet.  Because make no mistake: we are dependent on the Earth, not the other way around. Our little planet has survived everything from ice ages to droughts, and every calamity in between. The natural world is resilient… we are the fragile ones.  The “end of the world” just means the end of our time here.  The good news is that every day is another chance to plant a tree, to inform ourselves, to align ourselves with those seeking justice, and to decide not to just accept things the way they are, because, {in my best Dr. Seuss voice} “they haven’t always been this way”.